by:  Timothy Spadzinski, Occupational TherapyStudent Intern, University of Toronto

All posts are reviewed by a supervising Occupational Therapist. Toronto Children’s Therapy Center is appreciative of the time and research, placement students commit to in writing posts for our blog.


In everyday routines and activities, we are all unique in the way that we move and interact with the world around us. As adults, our life experiences, social networks, and meaningful activities have made us into the individuals we are today. For children, this process is in its early stages. But at times, we may find ourselves wondering:

Why do I DO things the way I do?”

This question of how we DO things has been asked by many neuroscientists, clinicians, and other researchers over the years. But what about you? You may be wondering it right now. Well our hope is that this post gives you a better understanding of how we learn to DO things – Motor Learning!

What is Motor Learning?

In short, Motor Learning is the way that we acquire motor skills or the ability to do specific things, and is different from “Performance”. Performance looks at how well you executed a skill at one time. Motor Learning involves practice and experience that develops into permanent change in someone’s ability (Haibach-Beach, P.S., Reid, G.D., & Collier, D.H., 2018). It involves a dynamic connection between our brain and our muscles called a neuromuscular system. In this system, how the brain is wired determines how muscles will respond in a certain situation. This involves internal and external factors that work together to create functional strategies of movement (Muratori, L. M., Lamberg, E. M., Quinn, L., & Duff, S. V., 2013).

Let’s imagine a toddler stacking blocks. Internal factors may include strength, range of motion, coordination, motivation, balance, among others. External factors may be the size of the blocks, the type of surface they’re sitting or standing on, or the presence of distractions in their environment (Muratori et al, 2013). How the child’s brain processes this information and puts it together will determine what movements they make to stack the blocks. For a child with a physical disability limiting their arm motions or who has a developmental delay limiting their processing, this may impact what methods are chosen to perform a task. But it doesn’t mean the child cannot learn something!

Characteristics of Motor Learning

Consistency is a child’s ability to repeatedly perform a skill at a certain level of expertise

Adaptability (Transferability) is the ability to process new information in the environment and adapt to any changes in it

Efficiency is the ability to complete a task successfully and limiting the amount of energy used

Retention is when a child demonstrates a learned skill after a delay in practice – this would look like: practicing regularly, seeing improvement, stopping for an extended period of time, and seeing a similar level of expertise in the skill when re-assessing the skill.

As the child practices more and more, the neuromuscular connection I mentioned before becomes stronger, and they may demonstrate more consistent, adaptable, and efficient movements. This is a sign of motor learning! (Muratori et al, 2013).

 Strategies to Promote Motor Learning

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice – repeated doing of a task creates stronger connections!
  2. Trial-and-Error – children use information from less successful attempts to improve
  3. Feedback – children require a “sweet-spot” of feedback that allows them to interact with the environment they are in but still provides instruction when needed.
  4. Mental Practice – continued practice without physical components can help!
  5. Sleep! Getting enough sleep at night allows the brain to solidify the new, stronger connections.

(Muratori et al, 2013; Sullivan et al, 2008)

How TCTC can help:

If you are interested in learning more about motor learning or believe your child could benefit from more focused, individualized help in this, please contact us! Our Occupational Therapists (OTs) use this understanding to develop specific techniques to help your child learn functional movement in many areas of life (i.e., dressing, printing, feeding, etc.). OTs use the strengths someone has to their advantage and builds on them to help learn new movement patterns. Take a look at our Occupational Therapy Services for more information on programs currently available! And keep an eye out for next week’s blog on Motor Planning!

We look forward to hearing from you!


Haibach-Beach, P.S., Reid, G.D., & Collier, D.H. (2018). Motor learning and development (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics. Retrieved from

Muratori, L. M., Lamberg, E. M., Quinn, L., & Duff, S. V. (2013). Applying principles of motor learning and control to upper extremity rehabilitation. Journal of hand therapy : official journal of the American Society of Hand Therapists26(2), 94–103. doi: 10.1016/j.jht.2012.12.007

Sullivan, K.J., Kantak, S.S., & Burtner, P.A. (2008). Motor learning in children: Feedback effects on skill acquisition. Physical Therapy, 88(6), 720–732. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20070196